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Beam Me Up, Professor: Rutgers-Camden Physicist Brings Laser Show to High School Students
CAMDEN - As you admire holiday lights this season, consider the physics of their sparkle. The incandescent lights illuminating our evenings are beautiful and are the opposite of lasers. Twinkle lights - on Christmas trees or on top of a menorah - can showcase many colors in all directions and in varying ways. In contrast, anyone who has ever used a laser pointer knows that they produce a single color and "beam" light in one direction.
For Sean O'Malley, an assistant professor of physics at Rutgers–Camden, anytime is a good time to talk about lasers. but when it's the 50th anniversary of the invention some call one of the 20th century's greatest, O'Malley's not just talking; he's taking his laser show on the road.
Sponsored by LaserFest, a yearlong effort to promote the myriad inventions made possible by laser technology, O’Malley’s outreach program is titled “Conjuring the Spirit of a Traveling Laser Salesman.” And like a salesman, O’Malley has outfitted all of his high-tech gadgetry into one handy suitcase. No, there isn’t smoke or heavy metal music, but there is plenty of excitement about all of the ways lasers have improved our everyday lives.
O’Malley brought his road show to three physics classes at LEAP Academy University Charter High School earlier this month. The Rutgers–Camden professor dazzled students with holograms he created of a Rutgers scarlet “R” and a matchbox car and made jaws drop with the removal of a tattoo, from a pig’s foot.
“I bought this last night at a grocery store,” O’Malley said of the pinkish foot inked up with an image of a Christmas present. As the high school students shrieked both “ewwww” and “coooool,” O’Malley proceeded to talk about how the ink absorbs the laser light, how some colors are harder to remove than others, and why the tattoo removal process is both more painful and costly. He then put on his shades, covered the laser, and zapped the pig’s foot with an infrared laser.
“If this were a live person, the tattoo would slowly fade away, but it would take multiple treatments,” O’Malley explained. The Rutgers–Camden researcher knew tattoo removal would be a cool hook to connect teens to more complicated physics concepts. Question was who could do the inking? Turns out, he didn’t have to look too far. A Rutgers–Camden student, who works in the physics lab on campus, just happens to have tattooing experience.
“I’m actually a body piercer,” says John Kuchmek, a senior physics major, with more than nine years experience in the cult craft. “But I have tattooed myself a few times as well as some of my more daring friends.” The Rutgers–Camden student isn’t surprised that his worlds of physics and body art have met. “Physics is in everything,” notes Kuchmek. “I sometimes use Newtonian mechanics to describe how jewelry stays in or grows out of the body based on shape.”
To the Camden high school students, this detail of an actual tattoo on an actual pig’s foot made O’Malley’s presentation memorable. Ninth graders Albelis Duran and Leandro Alvarez said it definitely captured their attention. For that their teacher Dr. Sreeya Sreevatsa is grateful. “Teaching physics for ninth graders is extremely challenging. They need to see immediate applications to appreciate what they are learning,” says Sreevatsa. “Very difficult terminologies were explained in the presentation in a very simple and easy to understand method.”
From showing how diabetics have benefited from lasers to discussing how Blu-Ray got its name, O’Malley noted many other applications of laser technology, including his own innovations. The Rutgers–Camden researcher utilizes pulsed laser deposition and has worked with national security officers to produce thin films of a special polymer to detect poisonous gases in the environment.
“It's fun for me to bring my lab work into the community, especially to students who might gain a better understanding and appreciation of the science in our everyday lives,” says O’Malley. “I’m hoping to continue this program beyond 2010.”
O’Malley has also given the demonstration at the Liberty Science Center and was part of LaserFest’s booth at the U.S. Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. A graduate of Seton Hall University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Rutgers-Newark, O’Malley joined the faculty of Rutgers–Camden in 2009.
Media Contact: Cathy K. Donovan